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How to Cook Dinner for 20,000 Syrian Refugees

The Bab Al-Salama IDP camp on the border of Turkey is home to thousands of Syrians displaced by the civil war that continues to rage in their homeland. Each day, the kitchen staff there make use of what limited resources are available to feed the...

The kitchen where Hisham Khalifa works is sweltering and noisy. The building itself is makeshift, with mismatched tiles and absurdly large cooking pots cluttered about. It is one of many permanent structures that have sprung up in Bab Al-Salama IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp, a tent city straddling the Turkish border inside Syria that is home to 20,000 people. The nauseating aroma of boiling meat mixes with the smell of sewage, body odor, and gasoline from generators in the surrounding camp. Dust, which is unavoidable, blows into the kitchen. Fortunately, the odor is offset by the friendly smiles with which Hisham and his chefs greet us.


It is clear that as desperate as it may seem, the cooks of Bab Al-Salama are abundantly proud of their work. Hisham gladly agrees to an interview but emphasizes that it must be short because he is a very busy man. "Twenty-five people work with me to feed 20,000," he remarks as he leads us inside the kitchen. He points out several staff stirring the massive shiny steel pots. "Here is where we mix meat and milk for the meals. All of our staff are Syrians from Azaz and the surrounding areas," he says proudly. Hisham is one of few who have been able to transfer their pre-war skills into employment inside Bab Al-Salama. Most people here are unemployed. I asked Hisham about his life before the war. "I was a chef," he says. "I have six children. Now we all live in the camp."

Bab Al-Salama itself is a miserable and overcrowded place. Almost all the internally displaced residents are from Aleppo province. Many have come here in the hopes of finding refuge or escaping to Turkey. New blast walls surround the tent city, which has been the target of frequent ISIS suicide bombs. Hisham and his family have lived in Bab Al-Salama for two years even though their home city of Azaz is less than a mile away. Like many of the others, they fled the Assad jets that bomb Azaz. The city has suffered tremendously during three years of war, and many, if not most, residents have abandoned it. In 2012, Azaz was the site of a notorious battle between the FSA and the Assad regime. It was later captured by ISIS, which ruled the area for over six months before being ejected by more moderate forces.


The kitchen staff uses large pots for cooking. Kids in line for food give the victory sign.

Like everyone else, Hisham says he and his family feel stuck here. While the camp was never meant to be permanent, the white UNRWA tents where families live have turned orange after three years of exposure to the dust. Refugees have begun to grapple with the prospect of raising an entire generation under these harsh conditions. Residents are living at the mercy of the elements, completely helpless, if not for the civic organizations proving food and some basic services. A small army of volunteers and workers like Hisham struggle to keep the tent city alive. They can be seen desperately trying to clear trash and manage the open sewers, which present a constant health risk. The food in Bab Al-Salama's only kitchen is provided by the Turkish government, a fact made abundantly clear by the Turkish flag patches on the staff uniforms. The Turkish flag is also visible flying above the border a few hundred meters away alongside the flag of the FSA. The Syrians here have long since lost faith in the west and most see Turkey and the Gulf States as their only benefactors.

As a haphazard supplement to the food prepared by Hisham and his staff, a makeshift market has sprung up on the edge of the camp. Chickens run free to eventually be butchered and sold; tents have been converted into candy shops that also sell simple toys for children. Under a blue tarp, children sell ice cream from a refrigerator hooked up to a generator. Despite the bizarre economy that has erupted within the boundaries of the tent city, few can afford to shop and most are entirely dependent upon food from Hisham's kitchen.


A makeshift butcher shop. Kids scraping the bottom of the bowl for food.

The food shortage in Bab Al-Salama is not nearly as severe as in the besieged parts of Syria. Starvation is a favorite tactic of the Assad regime and has resulted in a famine in Yarmuk camp in Damascus as well as numerous other locations. People in Bab Al-Salama are lucky that they aren't dropping dead from starvation like many of their countrymen, but they remain very hungry.

Dinnertime is a feeding frenzy. Children swarm in with pales and scoop up the food. Some eat with their bare hands, making sure to get every last morsel of the rice, meat, and milk stew. The food is unappetizing with a gray color and grainy texture, but the kids go for it like it's a banquet. The poor quality of the food is a reflection of the limited resources available. Hisham and his staff do their very best at working with the ingredients and supplies imported from Turkey. As we take pictures, an old woman with sad eyes approaches us, asking if we have any other food. "We don't. We're very sorry," we mutter with remorse as we look down knowing full well we will be eating a proper dinner when we cross back into Turkey. Unlike her, we have never had to go hungry.


Children run many of the shops for their families.In sha' Allah

Back in the kitchen, Hisham is eager to get back to work. Before leaving, we ask him to comment on the bomb that had recently flattened a building in Azaz. "I have nothing to say because in Azaz I feel hopeless," he replies soberly. When I ask if he ever planned on moving his family back and out of the camp, he replies simply, "."

Like millions of other Syrians, Hisham considers it far too dangerous to return home right now. Despite his family's uncertain future, he is happy to fight for his homeland by serving as master chef to thousands of his countrymen.


Hisham unveils a huge pot of milk.

"Will you keep doing this everyday?" we ask.

"Every day," he replies with a quiet determination.